February 20, 2018
As Congressional leaders geared up to pass a fifth Continuing Resolution to keep the federal government funded in a fiscal year that began almost 6 months ago, there was increased enthusiasm that a budget deal to lift the sequestration level spending caps was possible. A deal was finally reached, and science advocates celebrated. Raising the caps meant more wiggle room in the federal budget to fund science agencies and now appropriators could begin the process of completing an omnibus to take FY 2018 funding over the finish line.
Word soon circulated, however, that Congressional leaders had reached a side deal in the budget negotiations, and it focused on how new nondefense funding should be spent (infrastructure improvements, opioid epidemic, plus), meaning that the increases would not necessarily translate to science funding. Appropriators are sorting out the details regarding what the side agreement means for getting an omnibus spending bill passed, all before March 23rd, when the CR expires.
As policy wonks were thinking through the implications of the Congressional deals, the President’s budget request for the following fiscal year, Fiscal Year 2019, arrived on Capitol Hill. The document outlining the President’s budget initially called for significant cuts to federal science agencies, with a 27% reduction to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and an even higher 30% cut to the National Science Foundation (NSF). Thank goodness for budget deals; the late deal reached by Congress allowed the White House to add an addendum to the President’s budget request and add funding back in targeted areas.
A memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney to Speaker Paul Ryan stated: “After we finalized the FY 2019 Budget, the Congress reached a bipartisan agreement … to significantly raise the defense and non-defense discretionary spending caps in FY 2018 and FY 2019, and the President has signed these new caps into law.” He added: “…the Administration strongly supports the overall defense spending levels included in the bipartisan cap deal. However, given the current fiscal situation, the Administration is not proposing a Budget at the new non-defense caps [emphasis added],” meaning the Administration would not use all of the extra funding available on the non-defense side of the budget where most science funding lies because it “does not comport with its vision for the proper role and size of the Federal Government.”
The OMB letter, which served as an addendum to the President’s budget, proposed increases in priority areas such as funding for opioids and mental health, workforce development grants, student education assistance, and housing assistance for the elderly and disabled, among other areas. For science agencies of primary interest to our readers, the addendum restores funding for NIH and NSF to their current FY 2017 levels. The funding that would be restored to NIH, $9.2 billion, would be appropriated to the Office of the Director for allocating across the Institutes and Centers. The $2.2 billion in restored funding to NSF would fund the research account line (up $145 million), including support for two new cross-disciplinary research activities.
Other agencies not mentioned in the addendum, however, would remain at the levels proposed in the President’s budget. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) would be cut by 21 percent, rolled into NIH, and be renamed the National Institute for Research on Safety and Quality. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would receive an increase of $175 million for opioid programs, but its budget authority would also be cut by around $700 million. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration would receive close to a $675 million cut, and the Institute for Education Sciences would be cut by $80 million from the 2017 level.
The good news is that Congress will chart its own path. Last year, it largely rejected the President’s budget request and put together spending bills based on its own priorities. Although those bills for FY 2018 have not yet been conferenced or signed into law, the budget deal that raised the caps on spending will make it easier. Then Congress will turn its attention to FY 2019 and is likely to follow a similar path with respect to the President’s budget, especially since the caps were raised for next year as well.